Christine Manfield has created the definitive book on Indian cooking. She tells Peter Moore about her amazing journey through the food of India. With its luxurious silk cover, National Geographic -quality photos and authentic heirloom recipes from various regions of India, Christine Manfield's Tasting India is arguably the only book you need about India and its food. Indeed, India Today was so impressed that they called for it to replace Camellia Panjabi's venerable 50 Great Curries as the gift to give newly-wed couples heading off to live overseas. Peter Moore talks to Christine about her love for India and its food, and the incredible journey that led to the creation of this stunning book.
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Christine Manfield has created the definitive book on Indian cooking. She tells Peter Moore about her amazing journey through the food of India. With its luxurious silk cover, National Geographic -quality photos and authentic heirloom recipes from various regions of India, Christine Manfield's Tasting India is arguably the only book you need about India and its food. Indeed, India Today was so impressed that they called for it to replace Camellia Panjabi's venerable 50 Great Curries as the gift to give newly-wed couples heading off to live overseas.
Peter Moore talks to Christine about her love for India and its food, and the incredible journey that led to the creation of this stunning book.
My first trip to India was in the mid 90s. I was invited to be a guest chef at a restaurant there, to put on a menu and do my thing. That was starting point of a life-long love affair. It got under my skin. Something exciting. Something different to explore. Not spices. But there are always these interesting little nuances in the way that people use spices and that changes right across the country. Person-to-person, almost. A lot were from home cooks. And they are all authentic. It's not me as a westerner or an outsider coming in and putting on an overlay of how I perceive Indian food should be or how I would change things.
Each recipe is documented exactly as they were given to me. I set out with the goal of collecting heirloom recipes across modern India, and also look at how practices and other things have changed over time. How people cook today. The village girl in Calcutta. She told me that in her downtime, between the preparation for lunch and the preparation for dinner, she'd sit there and watch TV cooking shows and would just totally absorb everything she saw. Did going to India with a purpose, to find these heirloom recipes, show you a side of India you may not have otherwise seen?
People were only too happy to share that. I love going through markets anyway for stuff for the kitchen. You can engage, you can haggle, you can choose what you actually want to cook. Whose beans are better? This one or that one? Engage in that kind of process. Every Indian loves talking about two things: cricket and food.
Plus there was this respect straight away. Research really started from the first time I started going to India, so 20 years or so. But for this particular book, writing it, took about five years, going backwards and forwards.
I did 11 trips in that time. I went to places many times. Even now, even though the book has only just come out, I can add things. Particularly in the travel directory at the back of the book. What was really encouraging and enormously satisfying for me was that I just spent a week promoting the book in India and every single person commented on how authentic the recipes are, how true they are to the character of the country and how everyone can relate to the area that they come from.
If I was in Calcutta, they really loved the section on Bengali cooking, for example. It certainly went down well with India Today. What is it that defines Indian food? What makes it different from other cuisines? We have to start looking at it as an incredibly diverse and versatile food repertoire. We might have a very narrow perception of what Indian food is, but there is enormous regional variation.
It would be great to see those variations translate into a separate restaurant cultures in places like the UK and Australia. You definitely get that impression from the book that Indian food is very regional. Is that clearly delineated? Or is there some cross-over? You will get little South Indian places in the cities, in Delhi or Jaipur. You can still be within the one State, the ingredients will be similar.
But there will be variation on how things are prepared. Often that can come down to religion. And the balancing of flavour and texture as well. Just as the Chinese have the Yin and the Yang, the Indians have a similar concept. In the book you talk about primary tastes — bitter, salty, pungent, sour, sweet, astringent — and how in Bengali food they are eaten in a strict order.
The food does come down on the table pretty much at the same time. But if five or six dishes come down on the table at the same time, with the rice of course, you usually start with one dish that is more cleansing, and then move on. The flavours and the textures build on your palate.
Earlier in the year I was in a place, up in the mountains on the Kerala side, up where the spices grow, there was a restaurant that had opened in a smallish village. It was attached to a hotel, but it was a hotel where predominantly Indians stay.
They had set up a restaurant called The Fifty Mile Diet. Everything prepared there was from a 50 mile radius. In fact, they had established their own farm on the outskirts of the village and were raising different kinds of animals for cooking. They could tell you that the rice came from this village over there, this vegetable came from here. I found that fascinating. And to see that in a place that was fairly remote was fascinating.
We ate a terrific dish. They were split down the centre and stir fried with fresh green peppercorns, that are just growing everywhere, and nice, light sauce. It was quite a modern take on the dish but it was just using all the local stuff. With a nod towards the future. The snack culture in India is amazing.
And you get the best expression of that in the cities. I think the street food of Mumbai is unsurpassed. So the whole thing is environmentally friendly. And also in Delhi. Street food like the kebabs. You could go to a fabulous restaurant in Delhi and have great kebabs, but you could go on the streets and feed your whole village for the price of one plate in a posh restaurant. I think you follow that simple rule you follow anywhere.
You eat with the locals, you eat what the locals eat. But like anywhere else in the world, Indian food is evolving. There are also things now they can buy to make their lives easier — mixes of spices, pastes, that sort of thing. In Indian, it is what it is. Here, you get the Indian chefs cooking for largely a western audience, who may not like dishes that are too spicy.
Even in India, the food that you get for tourists is very different to the authentic experience. There's no dumbing down. Stuff the audience. And you can understand why they adopt their dishes accordingly. A lot of people are tempted to take the easy option of grabbing a sauce off the shelf. What are the rewards of putting in the effort and doing it yourself? If you have a very basic supply of a few different spices, a bit of yoghurt, a bit of coconut milk, bingo! You can taste that freshness.
I wanted to look at food in the context of its culture. Travel was the reason I went to India. But food was the focus. Having a focus made it a much richer experience. People go to India for all kinds of reasons. Some go for Yoga. And their impressions and interpretation of India will be coloured by that. Same with sport.
How Indians really cook
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Christine Manfield: Tasting India
When Christine Manfield goes to India, one of her favourite dining rituals involves an unlikely ingredient: butter. Each time the legendary chef and author finds herself in Hyderabad , the southern capital famous for its faded grandeur and its collision of Muslim and Hindu influences, she visits Govind Dosa. One of the many colourful snack vendors that line the streets of India. Source: Christine Manfield. Then, he adds potato, chilli powder and big chunks of butter before rolling them up in paper and handing them out. It really sets you up.